Stephen O’Neal builds a flatbed Alaskan truck camper rig tricked out and modded to an extreme rarely seen. Look out Crockett and Tubs, this Miami camper has a vise.
More than any other type of RV, truck campers are tools. As tools, they are often purchased to accomplish a specific task, and/or accommodate a specific hobby or interest. Want to tow a bass boat to fishing tournaments? Looking to off-road to the best landscape photography opportunities? How about camping off-grid at ski resorts in the dead of winter? A truck and camper combination is your best solution.
Those examples are kitten play compared to what Stephen O’Neal wanted to do. In short, Stephen wanted a rig that would be capable of traveling the most remote off-road and off-grid locations possible (think Alaska), while also being suitable as a daily driver in a major city (think Miami).
As if the hot to cold, palm tree to frost heave, and rush hour to wide open space contrast wasn’t enough, he also wanted to bring every conceivable self-recovery and field repair tool with him. Somehow describing Stephen’s rig as a tool doesn’t quite cut it. He designed and built a veritable Swiss Army knife, on wheels.
To this already superbly capable road machine Stephen added one of the highest performance security camera systems we’ve ever seen in an RV. Think the mods and versatility end there? Think again.
Above: Stephen and Toby with their Alaskan Camper rig
TCM: How did someone from Miami come to own an Alaskan Camper?
Stephen: Alaska was my goal when I put the Alaskan Camper rig together. I had flown as a co-pilot for two summers on a vintage Douglas DC-4 hauling fuel to villages in the Arctic Circle and gold mines where the landing strips are bulldozed mine tailings.
Above: Stephen’s 11-foot Alaskan on the Pacific Coast
There are no roads in these areas, but the beauty of Alaska drew me to want to see more from the ground. My Alaskan Camper rig is designed specifically for off-road and back-road adventure.
Above: Driving through Deadhorse, Alaska
TCM: Why did you decide to purchase hard-side pop-up truck camper?
Stephen: I spent two years figuring out exactly what I wanted. I did not want a conventional hard side truck camper. For where I want to go and what I want to do, hard side campers are too exposed to potential incidents. I needed something more compact and rugged.
Soft side pop-ups were an option, but didn’t offer the security I wanted. That brought me to Alaskan Campers and their unique hard side pop-up truck campers.
After two years of research including many Truck Camper Magazine articles, I designed a truck and Alaskan Camper rig that ensured the dependability I wanted. When you consider that Alaskan has been in production for over sixty years, they had to be doing something right.
When I was looking to buy, I had a choice of two used Alaskans; an 8.5-foot cabover in Idaho or an 11-foot cabover in Kentucky where the original owner had stored it. I live in Miami and it was already September, so Kentucky won.
Above: Stephen’s new water heater installation
TCM: Have you made any modifications to your Alaskan since taking ownership?
Stephen: Yes, I have. The camper had an inefficient hot water heating system. I removed the old system and installed a new hot water heater and improved plumbing lines for better hot showers. I also installed a low profile reverse cycle air conditioner, propane catalytic heater, and a solar power system with new batteries.
TCM: Tell us about your “reverse cycle” air conditioner.
Stephen: I installed an Airxcel Coleman Mach 8 Low Profile 13,000 BTU air conditioner with a heat pump which permits me to heat as well as cool my camper. I call it a reverse cycle air conditioner because it cools and heats.
I use the heat pump when the temperatures inside the camper approach 45 degrees. Below that I use my catalytic propane heater to warm up.
TCM: Looking at the photos of your rig, we noticed the security camera system. It looks like a custom solution. What’s the story there?
Stephen: As a veteran who spent time in harm’s way, security is always foremost on my mind. I want to enjoy the road and be safe when down for the night.
I initially considered a simple rear mounted four camera system. I had modified one already for my Chevy 3500.
Unfortunately, that system did not have an output AV jack that would allow me to view it from inside my camper. That’s when I decided to create my own security camera system for the Alaskan.
After some research, I purchased four 170-degree angle Esky cameras from Amazon. They are full-color, compact, and weatherproof. In addition, I purchased a solid state DVR SD-card recorder and a multi-purpose Axxes 13-inch HDTV with built-in DVD player.
The forward and side viewing cameras were mounted to the aluminum cabover support brackets. The rear view camera was mounted above the door. The wiring was run on the inside of the camper. I am not a big fan of wireless.
The 12-volt wiring for the camera system runs from the load control center. The load control center is powered by the house battery bank, which is charged daily by the solar panels on the roof. The cameras record continuously twenty-four hours a day.
From the cabover, I can select a single camera or view all four via a remote control. I also rewired by two 25-foot LED sidelights to operate via an on/off switch, or motion activate from a switch in the cabover. I intentionally did not install infrared cameras as they glow at night and can be seen with the naked eye.
TCM: That has to be one of the most elaborate security camera systems ever installed in a truck camper. We don’t normally hear about the load control center (for 110 volt shore power to 12 volt conversion) in truck campers. Is your load control center something special?
Stephen: The security camera system was actually very simple and easy to install. The total cost was under $150. When I’m down for the day, just one look at my TV monitor gives me a 360-degree view outside.
As for the load control center, Alaskan installs an IOTA brand with a charger that holds the 12-volt fuses, AC circuit breakers, and a standard battery charger that converts 110-volt shore power.
My charger is not a smart charger, but that works out fine because it bulk charges my house batteries when I am on shore power. Then the solar smart charger takes over during the day to keep my batteries topped off.
Above: Chevy 3500, gasoline, dually flatbed truck
TCM: Why did you decide on a dual rear wheel, gas engine truck?
Stephen: My 11-foot Alaskan is not a lightweight camper. The most cost-effective solution for the payload I needed and my other requirements was a Chevy 3500 four-wheel drive commercial chassis cab. It’s a simple work truck with 62-gallons of fuel capacity and a rear-end designed for towing.
During my truck research, I did a side-by-side comparison between the 6.0L V8 gas engine with the Duramax diesel engine. With 100,000 miles, after figuring purchase, maintenance, and operating costs, the gas engine was a no brainer.
TCM: Do you always leave your Alaskan Camper mounted the truck, or do you demount and store the camper when you’re not using it?
Stephen: It’s a semi-permanent mount. I use the truck with the mounted Alaskan as my daily driver.
TCM: For those who haven’t visited Miami, it’s a major city with major city traffic and congestion. Does your rig pose any challenges when navigating the Miami area?
Stephen: Miami is a challenge. Most folks think twice when they see the size of the rig. Actually, driving it on a daily basis has been a good experience for me. It gives me the experience and confidence to fall back on when I am on the road.
TCM: That would be an education. Why did you decide on a gooseneck flatbed?
Stephen: I saw some interesting flatbed rigs on Truck Camper Magazine and I knew a flatbed would offer additional storage space. The gooseneck capability came with the flatbed. Most flatbed trucks are pulling livestock, horses, or bales of hay.
TCM: Tell us about the design, material, and features of the flatbed. Is it custom?
Stephen: It’s not custom. The flatbed is a stock steel design with a headache rack. I cut the headache rack in half to save on weight.
The right side of the flatbed features storage for hand tools. The left side under the cabover carries tow straps, electrical jumpers, and winch items. The right side carries emergency signs, a spare starter, oil, belts, and more. All of my tools are on my truck.
I also needed a source of compressed air on the road that would handle an impact air gun for tire changes, run an airhorn, and keep my 19.5-inch Continental HDR tires aired up.
After reviewing mods in Truck Camper Magazine, I decided that the best place for an air compressor would be in one of the side compartments above the flatbed and not underneath where it would be subject to road abuse. That way it is protected.
I purchased a continuous duty Viair compressor and mounted it on the right rear access panel and powered it from my engine auxiliary battery. I had to relocate my right rear turnbuckle (one of six that holds the Alaskan in its frame) to accommodate the compressor mount.
Air is stored in a 5-gallon tank mounted to the flatbed under and in front of the compressor. The regulator is set at 125 PSI and I have a 25-foot air hose.
My first real test came on my 11,500 mile Lewis and Clark trip when I was climbing up the highway though the Gates of Hell in Montana. Pieces of tire started appearing on the incline and decline into a scenic view stop. There were two cowgirls and a trailer full of horses with a shredded tire and no tools.
Out came the air hose and impact tools. We got the shredded tire off and then a cowboy friend with another load of horses finished up the install.
TCM: Nice work. Why is there a bench vise mounted to your truck camper?
Stephen: Having spent my life working around airplanes, I have found that a vise comes in handy. I had the space on the rear deck, so why not install a vise?
So far I have used it for changing out pipe fittings, taping thread, and holding wood, sheet metal pieces, and pipe for drilling.
Above: There is also steps built into the flatbed for easy entry and exit
TCM: How did you mount your Yamaha 2400 IHSC generator to the flatbed deck?
Stephen: How to mount and secure the generator was a concern that was solved with a LowPro Lockdown that offered a semi-permanent solution.
A mounting plate was attached to the bottom of the generator with four screws and a Master Lock secured the generator in place.
A heavy-duty 30-amp rated extension cord was run through the passenger’s side storage box, and around the front of my Alaskan to the standard shore power plug.
Water is the number one enemy, so I decided the simplest approach was a small $3 umbrella that I carry in my cab. It secures in place with a bungee cord.
Finally, I purchased a cover with the generator. While functional, it creates an eye candy look so I will travel with a heavy-duty black trash bag over the factory cover when not in use.
To refuel the generator, I siphon fuel from the truck’s 63 gallon tank with a siphon hose to a small one-gallon fuel container.
I upgraded to a heavier duty siphon hose with reinforced walls. This allows me to push the hose in the required 5-feet to reach to the fuel tank. The siphon hose travels inside a 5-gallon wash bucket in the driver’s side storage compartment.
The generator exhaust is 90 degrees to the camper and my carbon monoxide battery is fresh. I cannot hear the generator above the air conditioner and the vibration is minimal.
TCM: Glad to hear that the carbon monoxide detector is in good working order. We published an important story on that topic titled, “Replacing RV LP, CO, and Smoke Detectors”. Other than the flatbed, tell us about any modifications you’ve made to the truck.
Stephen: For tires and suspension, I have Bilstein shocks, eight Rickson 225/70R 19.5-inch wheels, Continental 550 HDR tires, SumoSprings on the front, and double leaf SuperSprings SSA24 helper springs on the rear.
Using my CAT scale weights and wheel base measurements, I was able to compute where my center of gravity was located.
Interestingly enough, the addition of the front bumper compensated for a rearward shift of my center of gravity caused by the 4-foot flatbed extension. That brought my center of gravity slightly forward of the half way point between my front and rear axles.
With a set SumoSprings on the rear, my truck handles and steers like a Cadillac with even tire wear.
I also have a Ranch Hand front bumper, a Warn Winch with snatch block for increased pulling power and sharp angle rigging, and a Torklift SuperTruss hitch.
TCM: Why do you have a Ranch Hand front bumper?
Stephen: While researching what type of camper I wanted, I came across many pictures of front-end encounters with wildlife. That’s when I decided to add a robust front bumper guard. The cost of the bumper guard would be immediately offset by the cost of the potential damage, not to mention the inconvenience.
Above: Stephen’s Chevy truck with a standard Chevy Bumper
Above: Ranch Hand Bumper with Warn Winch
The Ranch Hand bumper I selected is rated for a 15,000-pound winch. The weight of the bumper came in at 300 pounds, which is a lot of steel hanging out on the front end.
After professionals installed the bumper with an overhead hoist, I went to Tim Halpin Equipment here in Miami. They specialize in outfitting tow trucks and were able to mount my Warn winch. It’s powered from the auxiliary battery.
The winch has 95-feet of steel cable and, since my truck weighs in at 14,000 pounds and the winch is rated at 15,000 pounds, I also purchased a one-pulley snatch block with a tree saver strap.
By routing the cable through the snatch block back to the truck recovery hook, I doubled my capacity to 30,000 pounds provided I could find a suitable tree within 45-feet. Another option will be to carefully route the cable under the truck and use the winch to pull the truck backwards out of whatever it might be stuck in.
Determined to avoid introducing a weak link I picked an oversized titanium-based recovery hook rated at 45,000 pounds set up for the 2-inch receiver on the Ranch Hand.
TCM: What kinds of situations do you see yourself being in to need this kind of winch capacity?
Stephen: Primarily, it’s for getting unstuck while off-road. It may be me or it may be someone else who needs help
TCM: You also stated that your truck carries 63 gallons of fuel. Is that standard, or did you add a supplemental fuel tank?
Stephen: It’s a standard factory fuel tank for long distance towing. The extended capacity is perfect for my desire for long range driving.
Since my work truck does not have a dashboard readout for fuel mileage, I purchased a OBDII (on-board diagnostic system) that works with my iPhone so that I can plan fuel stops and check engine and transmission parameters.
One issue that concerned me was the impact the Alaskan Camper had on fuel mileage. With the flatbed, the camper sits 3-4 inches higher than it would with a standard pickup bed. That leaves a 6-inch gap between the top of the truck cab and the underside of the cabover. That and the 8-inch height of the Alaskan front-nose is exposed to airflow.
To better direct the airflow, I designed a V-shaped spoiler with side air dams. I used the V-shape rather than a lateral spoiler as it better handled the drag created by the frontal area of the Alaskan.
I have seen several spoiler installations on truck camper rigs featuring circular cut-outs, or using a porous material. I believe these are self-defeating designs that create more turbulence and drag than they resolve. Birds and airplanes that depend on efficient airflow do not have holes in their wings.
TCM: That’s an interesting observation. How did you build the spoiler?
Stephen: I had a fabricator cut a 1-inch section of a 10-foot by 7-inch aluminum panel bent at 90 degrees. Then, he made a cut of that section in the center at 5-feet. Once cut, the panel was hand bent to form the V-shape.
After painting, the spoiler was attached to ½-inch wood screws to the ¾-inch plywood structure of cabover through the aluminum cladding. My goal was to have a ½-inch space between the spoiler and the cab roof.
Then, I attached an accordion style rubber seal to close the gap. That way there is a constant deflection. The mounting was sealed with Sikaflex caulk.
For the side air dams I had my fabricator weld a 2-foot section of 2-inch angle iron to the headache rack to secure the side air dam panels. Then the precut painted panels were mounted and joined with the spoiler after the rear crew cab door.
Test runs on Miami area freeways showed a three mile per gallon improvement, which would equate to a 337-gallon savings on an 11,000 mile trip.
TCM: That’s incredible. Is your Alaskan flatbed rig completed, or are there more mods and upgrades planned?
Stephen: It’s almost done. I want to set up two bag awnings, one on the rear and one on the driver’s side.
TCM: Tell us about traveling with your dog, Toby. Does he like truck camping?
Stephen: He’s a trooper and has made the front passenger’s seat his and the center console his headrest.
Of course, that’s within an easy reach for me to scratch his head. He has no special needs other than water and food in both the truck and the camper.
On our first trip out, he would bark at cows. Now, when he sees a bison, bear, or moose he just yawns and goes back to sleep.
TCM: Clearly he has seen his fair share of bovine. What are some of the stand out places you and Toby have visited with your Alaskan Camper rig?
Stephen: In 2014, we went to Texas, up to Pennsylvania, and over to Maine. We did very little camping on that trip since I was primarily visiting friends and family.
In 2015, I picked up the Lewis and Clark trail in Kansas City and followed it to the Pacific Coast and back. That was about an 11,000 mile trip.
What really made that trip fun was Stephen Ambrose’s audiobook “Undaunted Courage”. It’s a biography of Meriwether Lewis and describes in detail the Lewis and Clark expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. By night I would listen to the book. By day I would visit the places mentioned.
I came away with a profound respect for Native Americans and their way of life, especially after Little Big Horn and a book called “Custer’s Fall: The Native American Side of the Story”. It’s a first hand account from over 70 Native Americans who fought at Little Big Horn and Rosebud.
This past year I drove to Texas, starting out in Big Bend, and then drifted north in a zig-zag pattern to Deadhorse, Alaska and back. That was about a 16,000 mile trip.
One of my favorite spots from this past trip was on the western side of Glacier National Park at Kinta Lake. It’s where Heaven and Earth meet.
Banff in Alberta, Canada was next and I was impressed how Canadians refer to their indigenous people as First Nation.
I think the most challenging drive was the 414-mile Dalton Highway “Haul Road” from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back.
TCM: What are your future truck camping plans?
Stephen: I am heading back to Texas for Thanksgiving, then to California via Death Valley National Park and Yosemite National Park. As far as additions, I am studying whether to get a double axle trailer to carry a UTV, and possibly other stuff. Next year I am thinking about spending the summer and fall in Montana.